BEIJING — Erin Jackson ended a drought of U.S. speedskating medals by taking first place in the women’s 500-meter race on Sunday, becoming the first African American woman to win a medal in the sport. It is also the first medal for an American speedskater in Beijing and the first individual speedskating medal won by an American since the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“I cried immediately, just like a big release of emotion,” Jackson, 29, said after the race. “A lot of shock, a lot of relief and a lot of happiness.”
Jackson, who is called Speedy or E.J. by her teammates, is an accomplished in-line skater who took her first unsteady steps onto the ice in 2016 in the Netherlands, where she was spending three months training for in-line skating. She qualified for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics after four months of training, finishing 24th in the 500 meters there.
Jackson became the most dominant 500-meter skater in the world in only the past few months. Most of the 2020-21 speedskating season was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, and she missed the few races that were held, like the world championships, after a bungee cord snapped and caused an eye injury that required surgery.
She had recovered by November, when she won three of the first 500-meter World Cup races held in Poland and Norway, taking second place in the other. “OK, that’s strange,” Jackson said she remembered thinking after the first victory. “Let’s see where it goes, and then I won another one. And then I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can do this.’”
She did it by skating her race in 37.04 at the National Speed Skating Oval in front of several hundred Chinese fans and journalists, and a small but rowdy section of U.S. skaters and staff members who cheered wildly before she took to the ice. It was the third-fastest 500 meters ever skated at a low-altitude oval.
The 500 meters is the shortest race in speedskating: just one straightaway, and then a lap around the 400-meter oval. Jackson’s starts, which are crucial in such a short race, were inconsistent over the second half of the World Cup season. But she had the second-fastest start in the field on Sunday; she said she spent the past week in Beijing working on them.
Jackson’s joy was not immediate. As part of the second-to-last pair to race, alongside Kaja Ziomek of Poland, Jackson knew when she crossed the line with the fastest time of the night that she was guaranteed a bronze medal. But she had to wait for Olga Fatkulina of Russia and Andzelika Wojcik of Poland to skate.
Jackson took a level-headed approach to the two-minute wait to see if she would win gold. “Well, there’s nothing I can do,” she said. “I’m a pretty calm person anyway. So I was just waiting and watching.”
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Shortly after her win, Ryan Shimabukuro, her coach, embraced her. “I said the same thing I said to Joey Cheek in 2006,” Shimabukuro said. “You’re an Olympic champion.”
Miho Takagi of Japan won silver, and Angelina Golikova of Russia took the bronze.
Jackson’s participation in Beijing almost ended before it began. During the Olympic trials in Milwaukee in January, she slipped in her race and finished third, with the United States having just two entries in the 500 meters at the Olympics. Her teammate Brittany Bowe, who is better at the 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters but finished first in the 500 meters at the trials, gave up her spot to Jackson.
Bowe’s sacrifice was ultimately unnecessary: The United States was later awarded a third Olympic entry in the event after a complicated process of reallocating spots. She finished 16th. Having spoken about that moment a lot in the past month, Bowe deflected the attention back to Jackson after the race.
“I was part of the puzzle, but I want this moment to be all about her,” Bowe said. “She’s done this. She went to the start line on her own, and she skated the best 500 of her life.”
Jackson is the only Black athlete competing for the United States in speedskating at the Olympics — another Black woman, Maame Biney, is competing in her second Olympics for the United States in short-track speedskating — and one of the few competing in any event in speedskating, a sport that is dominated by athletes from Europe and East Asia.
“Hopefully, it has an effect,” Jackson said. “Hopefully we can see, you know, more minorities, especially in the U.S.A., getting out and trying some of these winter sports. And I just always hope to be a good example.”
In 2006, Shani Davis’s victory in the men’s 1,000 meters made him the first Black athlete to win any individual Olympic gold medal in a Winter Games.
Jackson, a University of Florida graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and materials science, said she also hoped to demonstrate that academic and athletic success were not mutually exclusive.
Speedskating has historically produced the most medals at the Winter Olympics for the United States, but they have been hard to come by recently. Americans did not win any medals in the sport at the 2014 Sochi Games, a debacle that devolved into arguments about the skin suits worn by athletes and a high-altitude training camp before the low-altitude Games. The only speedskating medal that the United States won in 2018 was a bronze in the women’s team pursuit.
Jackson is the first American woman to win an individual medal in speedskating since the 2002 Games, when Chris Witty won the 1,000 meters and Jennifer Rodriguez won bronze medals in the 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters. Other American medal contenders, like Bowe and Joey Mantia, have not skated well in Beijing. Mantia’s sixth-place finish in the men’s 1,500-meter race was the best American performance before Jackson’s.
“We needed that bad,” Bowe said when asked what Jackson’s victory meant for U.S. speedskating.
If there is a scary thought for her opponents, it is that Jackson is still getting used to the ice.
“I still have a bit of fear when it comes to skating on the ice,” she said in December. “I don’t have a lot of trust in myself and the blades, the ice and definitely the people around me.”
Even after a gold-medal performance, she said on Sunday that she was still getting comfortable with it. Shimabukuro had previously said that Jackson was still in her infancy in the sport, but he upgraded the metaphor after her victory. “She graduated to first grade today,” he said, “or maybe she skipped the elementary school and jumped to college.”
Any discomfort is masked by her explosive speed.
“She has really good technique. She has really, really strong hips, and she keeps them stable and steady when she skates,” said Kimi Goetz, an American who finished 18th in the race.
Goetz added, “She is putting so much power into the ice, and she is just super fast.”
Jackson is part of a stable of American skaters, including Bowe and Mantia, who are from the surprising speedskating hotbed of Ocala, Fla. Renee Hildebrand coached them all in in-line skating before they moved to the ice. It is a well-worn path for American skaters, like the Olympic medalists Chad Hedrick and Derek Parra, because in-line is not an Olympic sport.
From winning her first World Cup races to slipping at the trials and then winning Olympic gold, it has been a challenging three months for Jackson.
“Yeah, it’s been a wild ride,” she said, “but I think that makes it even sweeter.”